Beef tartare appetizer and other Puerto Rican-influenced items are popular menu items at restaurants.

Some 4 million Puerto Ricans live in the continental U.S. these days. And we have them to thank for making some of my favorite foods - such as mofongo - easier to find.

It's hard to ignore the growing influence Puerto Rican foods and chefs are wielding on American cuisine.

"That influence has been here for the past decade and it just keeps growing," says Susan Ungaro, president of the James Beard Foundation. "I think they have become absorbed into the way many restaurants and chefs are cooking."

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There are no good counts of Puerto Rican chefs or restaurants on the mainland - most statistics only track larger categories, such as Mexican or Chinese - but most observers agree they are spreading. And fast.

Part of it is due to the growth of the overall Hispanic population. It also helps that Puerto Rican culture is particularly accessible.

"The great thing about the Puerto Rican food and culture is that they are bi-cultural," says Elizabeth Johnson, a chef-instructor who specializes in Latin cuisines at The Culinary Institute of America in San Antonio. "They flow through English and Spanish and are both American and Puerto Rican."

It also helps that Puerto Ricans are fond of a particularly addictive flavor combination - sweet and salty. Many dishes have both elements, such as fried sweet plantains with pork. One good example is pastelon. It is meat with sweet plantains, layered like a lasagna, then baked.

Another favorite of mine is the mallorca - which is like a Danish, but larger. Some bakeries serve them with ham and cheese (salty) which tastes amazing with the sweetness of the mallorca that has powdered sugar on top.

Last year marked the first time the Beard Foundation included Puerto Rico in its restaurant and chef awards, and several chefs from the island have been featured chefs at dinners held at the foundation's New York house.

In fact, Jose Andres restaurant on the island - Mi Casa - was named a semi-finalist of the group's best new restaurant category, while Jose Enrique was a semi-finalist for best chef in the South. Meanwhile, the American Culinary Federation recently organized a seminar on the flavors of Puerto Rico.

"I think it's awesome that we opened the door for the future," says Enrique, who also was named a "Best New Chef" by Food and Wine magazine for 2013. "It's an industry that has grown a lot and people are a lot more aware of the food now."


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